Fire from Heaven (ISBN 0582101344) was one of the very first books that I read on the subject of Alexander the Great, here depicted in his early years up to his accession to the throne of Macedonia. It is a novel, of course, but it is what we call a historic novel as the entire story is based on facts that have come to us through ancient writers. Consequently, the greater part of Alexander’s life is fiction and we should not look too closely at the details, but, all in all, Mary Renault manages to describe the décor and circumstances in which Alexander grew up with a great feeling of trueness since they are interwoven with historical facts.
Although Mary visited Greece only once in her life, she manages to describe the landscape and daily life very vividly and makes you feel part of the events. It is amazing to discover that she wrote this book when she was well into her sixties (1969), to be followed three years later by the controversial Persian Boy. In her later years, Mary Renault, to be pronounced as Ren-olt, managed to create her own Greek world based on what she read in ancient literature and the details she found in statues and on painted vases about all facets of life in those days.
Whether you know about Alexander or not, you witness a vivid and lively account of daily life in Macedonia in the fourth century BC and more specifically at the Royal Court. Both Alexander’s parents show themselves each with their own character, King Philip II the womanizer but highly successful warrior and leader of the peoples in and around Macedonia; Queen Olympias with her dark furies and mysterious Dionysus rites and very possessive of her son. We witness how Alexander struggles within himself with this heritage, but also how he finds comfort in Hephaistion’s unwavering trust and devoted friendship.
Historians have a tendency to shrug their shoulders and smile pathetically when you mention this book, but it is one of the rare occasions to come so close to what could have been Alexander’s true life in his early years. The only author from antiquity mentioning anything about his boyhood is Plutarch, all the others start with Alexander’s deeds after Philip’s murder when he became King of Macedonia and set out to conquer Asia. Based on the very scarce information available, the efforts of Mary Renault are even more recommendable.
Personally, I dare say that this story is very close to the truth – at least, that is my personal opinion. When I visited Pella for the first time many years ago, I had the feeling of a déjà vu thanks to her book. It was amazing to discover how skillfully she brought the ruins to life!
Also available as e-Book.
Also available as e-Book.